One practice, one life, one moment
A conversation between two Australian artists
Nell and Lionel Bawden
One’s art practice can be a kind of vitality expressed in permutations through repetition and variation. For Sydney artist Nell, this vitality in the studio runs parallel to a dedicated Zen meditation practice and a yoga practice- three strands of knowing oneself.
Nell’s Major themes of Sex, Zen and Rock ‘n’ Roll, (or Birth, Life and Death) are continually re-explored simultaneous to the mining of new materials for qualities and sensations both physical and metaphorical. Nell who often speaks of life’s essential dualities is both playful and monastic, embraces themes from the whimsical to the epic and creates works evocative of sadness and of joy.
Nell brings the whole spectrum of life into her work, allowing small momentary gestures equal space beside works that have literally consumed hundreds of hours to create. Her lexicon is universal and everyday, her subjects (of egg, tree, mountain and lightning bolt…) remain dynamic, each continually reappearing anew, across many years of creation.
The meditating figure is core to Nell’s practice, literally and as an image for a focused self-awareness and discovery within each moment. This practice of observing every sound, every sensation, every view, provides Nell abundant material for endless enquiry.
Nell has shared with me, repeatedly, over a decade of friendship, the knowledge that within any action sits an opportunity to bring one’s attention to the present, whether doing the washing up, sitting in quiet meditation, dancing or engaged in an act of creation or destruction.
‘Summer’, like much of Nell’s work has a playfulness that belies its complexity and layering of meaning. An enormous blowfly has emerged from the pages of Shunryu Suzuki’s ‘Zen mind beginnner’s mind’ and emblematic of the Australian Summer is swatted by the artist with a cricket bat. Nell bows to the fly recognizing their shared life and shared transience in this moment and then beats the hell out of it. This video literally recycled the fly sculpture, which Nell created years earlier for exhibition at The Art Gallery of NSW. The violence and frustration played out in the work formed a practical solution to the question of what to do with a large sculpture that has been in expensive storage for too long. This inventive repurposing is typical of the kind of alchemy taking place on any given day within Nell’s studio.
Nell is very honest about how she is feeling. Thoughts and emotions feed the work through a direct genesis from open experience. Whether that experience seeds a new concept, innovates expression through the integration of a new material or gesture or refines a long repeated process, the experience of daily studio practice moves from Nell into her work.
Nell’s work illuminates questions of existence, each artwork an opportunity to bring a specific moment into sharper focus, gently touching reality, observing it and letting it go.
Lionel: I have been fascinated by your recent embrace of the quote “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” Theodore Roosevelt. Can you please tell us how this thinking has infiltrated your current practice?
Nell: Ha! You know I came across this quote on a magnet on your fridge? It pretty much sums the up the whole matter of the difference between what we think we want and the reality of where we are. I adopted it as a daily mantra and painted several versions of it on old record sleeves. One watercolor version, Do watcha can where you are with whatcha got appeared in a recent exhibition, Made in the Dark at KalimanRawlins in Melbourne.
Lionel: You often speak of the Zen concept of “the one and the many,” which I can see present in your work in multiple guises, can you tell me about how this concept informs your work?
Nell: With any kind of practice, Zen, yoga, art etc. you find out pretty quickly that concepts and ideas are huge stumbling blocks in the way of the direct experience of what is ACTUALLY happening. When you sit still for long periods you start to feel really connected to everything – you realise the whole world shares the same air you are breathing. And yet, “every person breathes through their own nose” as the Zen saying goes. The “one and the many” is just shorthand way of describing the wholly interchangeable and magic dance between the universal and the personal. In terms of my work, when it is flowing, who can even say it is mine!?!
Lionel: The smiley face has become central to your personal language and the key emblem for a whole series of significant works including your annual Bronze editions. How is this significant and can you discuss the role that joy plays in the studio and as subject?
Nell: Everything has a face and everything is happy J! There is definitely a part of my practice that is devoted to keeping things preposterously simple and almost childlike. I also like putting smiley faces on things that you wouldn’t at first associate with happiness, like a gravestone and a poo. When the meaning of a work is direct and simple it effortlessly connects with others and that makes me happy and full of joy!
Lionel: You are known for constantly surprising us (the viewer) with new techniques and materials. Can you share with us some thoughts on the dynamism of different kinds of matter for transmitting ideas?
Nell: I didn’t plan it that way, it’s just the way my practice has led me. Sometimes it’s the same theme expressed in a different material, sometimes new materials breed new ideas, sometimes the material holds all the meaning and sometimes I just don’t even know how it works and often I surprise myself! I really enjoy working with people who are highly experienced with a particular material … I like to tap into their passion and I go to great lengths to understand that material and it’s place in life and art history. When I work with a new medium it’s like having a new lover! But I never lose my love for all other materials I’ve used in the past and when I work with a material again, my relationship with it inevitably deepens.
Lionel: Music and dancing seem so embedded into your work. Share with us some of your history doing swing dancing and the role music plays in your creative process?
Nell: I spent most of my early 20’s going to dance lessons or going out dancing about five nights a week. I had dance partners, did competitions, was part of a dance troupe and did commercial gigs. I was obsessed by all forms of dance, clothes and music from the 1920’s to the 1950’s – Swing, Jitterbug, the Charleston, Lindy-hop, Swing, Rock ‘n’ Roll, Rockabilly etc. Dancing was the only thing that ever tempted me away from making art and I got good at it but I was never going to be very good so the decision was made. And then I spent most of my late 20’s and early 30’s compulsively going to see live music and wishing I was a Rock Star!!! On one hand I possess this desire to be a Rock Star and on the other hand feel a calling to monastic life. So making art is just perfect for my nature as it expresses both these poles – the introspective and reflective work of a dedicated studio practice juxtaposed with the external celebration of the artwork in public through exhibitions.
Lionel: Song lyrics have long made it into the titles of your artworks and exhibitions, connecting to the contemporary poetry of the masses. Can you pick a recent work and a key older work and provide us some insight into the genesis of the titles from a song line and how that creates meaning for you?
Nell: The oldest work I remember giving a song title to was, “Groove is in the Heart” from 1997. It was a massive wall piece made of red felt with red hearts fractaling out from the centre of the wall up onto the ceiling. Each heart had three humps and therefore, two grooves so the title fit like a glove! The work was about loving two people, a man and a woman at once. The pieces in ‘Made in the Dark’, that I mentioned earlier, were all either black or white so a title referring to the act of making and to darkness was ideal. I’d also previously flipped the title to “Made in Light” for a 7-floor neon installation. “Made in Light” refers to the conditions of working with light but by implication, it must also be concerned with darkness. In the same way all sound exists only in relation to silence. The lighter the light, the darker the dark, no exceptions!
Lionel: AC/DC have become one of the key elements in the dictionary of
Nell. What the hell is it with AC/DC? I hardly know where to start when talking about AC/DC! I love the font, I love the music, I love the fans, I love the merchandise, the paraphernalia, the whole phenomena that is AC/DC. Sunday school was my first aesthetic. Seeing boys walk down the main street in Maitland wearing ripped jeans and AC/DC T-shirts was my second aesthetic. And I’m still making work about the harmony and collision of those two worlds. I have also always loved that the word “AC/DC” is used as a colloquial synonym for bisexuality and by extension, for in-between places and it’s for this reason that I use the lightning bolt as reoccurring motif.
Lionel: In the spectrum of life, we often speak of mind, body, heart & spirit, which you seem to have pretty well covered. You have your focussed Art practice, a longstanding dedicated Yoga practice, a loving relationship core to your life and a focussed Zen meditation practice. Can you tell us about how this balance grounds your studio practice and consciousness as an artist?
Nell: We do often speak about the different parts of our being or about different kinds of practice. And it is true that our different parts serve various functions and that all forms of practice have specific directives. These differences can be celebrated endlessly and, in terms of language such distinctions are indispensable to communicate effectively to one another. But what is also true is that nothing is divisible nor exists in isolation. We can talk about a birdsong, a bird’s beak, it’s feathers or wings but the whole bird flies! So it is not so much a case of external practices informing my studio practice but of breaking down to walls to see there is only one practice, one life, one moment etc.
Lionel: Your work is often really charged with sexual energy and that is something that you really own, as a human being and as a woman, in a way that is at once bold but not indecent. Sexual vitality runs through the work in imagery of the egg, sperm, the biblical temptation by the snake & his forbidden fruit as well of different kinds of physical penetration of one object into or through another. How essential is this openness about sexual energy within your work?
Nell: The biological purpose of sex is to procreate so it makes sense that sexual energy is highly creative. Life creates. And death is so near to life, maybe just a breath away. So I just try to realise I’m alive, like really ALIVE and remember that I, and every person I know and love will die. It is the certainty of death that fuels the creative urgency to make art and love! Of course, after a while I forget these things and I have strategies in my life and practice to remind me. Funerals are sharp, sharp reminders.
Lionel: We have had our hearts broken a few times and the world keeps changing around us. Although your work still holds a real playful vitality often attributed to youth, how do you think one’s thinking about the world deepens as we get older?
Nell: Short answer is, life gets both easier and harder! Experience gives a whisper of wisdom yet entrenched patterns become harder to see and undo.
Lionel: If there was one artwork from the entire history of humanity that you could have, in your home or studio to marvel at forever, which work would you chose today?
Nell: I’d take a lottery dip on any of the 38 egg-shaped canvases by Lucio Fontana. Each canvas has been punctured and perforated in a manner that literally and metaphorically pushes through the illusionistic skin of painting into real space. Simultaneously violent and serene, standing in front of this series called “Le Fine de Dio” (The end of God) is like watching a painting give birth to a sculpture. Wrap it up and deliver ASAP please!!!